Alex Trebek was the good, grey eminence of game shows– a reassuring sign that there are correct answers and absolute truths.
Trebek died today (Nov. 8) at 80, after almost two years of pancreatic cancer. He had been a TV presence for 58 years – totaling only nine months of joblessness, he said – including the past 36 as the “Jeopardy” host..
“He symbolizes learning and knowledge to (a) second or third generation,” Ken Jennings, one of the show’s all-time champions, told the Television Critics Assocation in January. And he makes “it look effortless,” added Brad Rutter, another all-time champ. “This guy, no matter what he’s going through, just gets better and better.”
There was also a flip side, somewhere under that dignified surface. “I love silliness,” Trebek said.
He was recalling the times he toyed with his facial hair. That began, he said, when he shaved his mustache (“on a whim”) between shows and was startled by the news reaction.
“It blew my mind,”Trebek told the TCA. “There were wars going on in the Middle East, I said, ‘and you guys are focusing on my mustache? Get a life, please.’”
After that, he would sometimes add or subtract a ‘stache – or even a beard – to toy with people. He was also part of bigger gags.
Rutter recalled the time he and two other contestants decided to stand behind the podium without their pants. “We all had a good laugh. And then (announcer) Johnny Gilbert said, ‘And now the host of “Jeopardy,” Alex Trebek.’ And Alex came out with no pants on.”
Somehow, he had overheard their plan. “He’s like Santa Claus,” Jennings said. “He hears everything.”
Then there was the joke that was turned on Trebek. Preparing for a show, he said, he saw a category called “when the Aztecs spoke Welsh,” filled with difficult pronunciations.
“I’m making dialectical marks to help me pronounce these words correctly. And then we’re about to tape this one and I said, ‘What happened to the “Aztecs speaking Welsh?”’
“And (a producer) said, ‘Have you looked at your watch or your calendar? It’s April 1.’”
None of that diminishes the stately image Trebek presented on-air. Jennings called him “the last of the great, old-school broadcasters.”
He persisted, even during cancer treatments. “For some reason,” Trebek said, “I can suck it up when Johnny introduces me. It doesn’t matter how I’ve been feeling …. It’s just showtime, and I get to spend time with bright individuals.”
They seemed to enjoy being with him. As James Holzhauer, another all-time champ, asked in January: “Can you name someone who has been in Hollywood for 60 years and hasn’t ever had, like, any kind of even minor scandal about him?”
Replied Trebek: “There’s still time.”